Warmth of Steel


“GRAAAHHH!!!! M-MY LEEEEEGGG!!!”

Surrounded by the sounds of screaming people and falling rocks, I fell victim to a falling piece of debris. Screaming in agony as my right leg got crushed

“Ah…AAAHAHH!!!”

I tried to pry my leg away, but that only served to inflict more than I already felt.

Wait, I know! I’ll lift the debris off with my ri…

My ri…

“…”

As I tried to reach for the debris crushing my leg, I saw blood spewing out from a stump where my arm used to be. That’s when I noticed a piece of a building’s glass window fell and sliced my arm. I can see my severed arm through the glass.

Before the reality of what had just happened set in, I felt myself slip into unconsciousness.

How did this all happen? It was a riot attack by the ‘Cychos.’ They’re a group of cybernetically ‘Enhanced’ people fighting against those they call ‘Naturals.’ I was out fetching meds for Mom at a pharmaceutical store when the attack happened.

The Naturals are a group of people against the Cybernetics Initiative Act. The act’s purpose is to give people with physical and mental disabilities a chance to regain what they lost through cybernetic enhancements. But, this act counts for both cosmetic and necessary surgical procedures. It led to people with cybernetics having physical and mental processing advantages. That’s when the naturalists banded together to get another act passed called The Naturalist Acquisition Act.

The Act forces businesses of all types to prioritize ‘natural’ citizens. If an employer allows people with cybernetics, they must provide an intrusive list of their cybernetic replacements/enhancements. They must sign a contract that prohibits said cybernetics or limits their use. Employers can even choose to deny employment. Naturally, this led to a protest of people who use cybernetics not out of wants but need. Naturalists fought back with statements that claimed cybernetics undermined those without them. That, or they posed a security risk since potential implants would allow them to hack devices wirelessly.

While relatively peaceful at first, the few bad apples with cybernetics let the power they gained go through their heads, leading to violence. Because of this, those with cybernetics, whether violent or not, are called ‘Cychos.’ Even Monsters, men or women, were included if they had\ cybernetic prostheses/enhancements.

As if gender and race segregation weren’t enough, Naturalists and Cychos became bitter enemies to the point where your social standing was affected by it. Some places would only allow ‘Naturals’ and vice versa. As things stand now, I was about to go through that change.

“Wha…where am I?”

“Hmm? You’re awake! Honey, thank goodness you’re alive!”

“Mom…what happened?”

“You don’t remember?” My vision was still hazy, but from what I could make out of it, I saw a heart rate monitor next to me and an IV bag. I must be in a hospital.

“No…wait…kind of. I was at the pharmacy grabbing meds on my way home from school…”

“Yes. I’m glad you didn’t lose your memories. I thought you might’ve lost those too!” My memories? What did Mom mean by that? As my vision cleared, I saw her holding a white and black cybernetic arm. Her hands, she’s holding onto its hand.

“!”

Pulling the hospital bed sheets covering my body, my flesh and blood left leg was gone. Replaced by a cybernetic prosthesis, I put my left hand on my right shoulder. Sure enough, what I felt was something hard and cold.

“Ah…AAAAHHHH!!!!”

Yes. I only just now realized that I lost my right arm and left leg. Replaced by cybernetic prosthetics. I’m grateful my parents were willing to spend this much money to save my life…

“M-Maurice! Please, calm down! I know this is a big change, but your father and I had no choice!”

But at the time, the shock of knowing my life’s social standing was gonna change so drastically took over. Without thinking, I tried to get away from it all. My flailing caused the medical team to come and sedate me. I wasn’t released until they were sure I had calmed down.

Two weeks had passed before I finally came to terms with what had happened. And by then, my life had changed for the worse…

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

“I’m sorry, Maurice. But I’m afraid I’ll have to kick you out of the basketball team.” After months of physical therapy, I could attend school again. My school was all-inclusive, but even then…

“But why, coach?! I’ve always been part of this team from the beginning of my junior year!”

“It’s one thing if the team consists of naturals and cych-I mean…cybernetically enabled. But Maurice, you’re the only one in the team that uses cybernetics now.” Only a week had passed after coming back to school. My basketball coach took me to his office to talk. He kicked me out of the basketball team due to my cybernetic prosthetics.

“These cybernetics allowed me to walk and use both arms again! It’s not like these prostheses allow me to jump higher or throw harder!”

“Perhaps, but try convincing everyone else that. Because of your…cybernetics, the others think you have the advantage over them. That doesn’t even take official school matches into account. Look, I really am sorry, Maurice. What happened to you is quite unfortunate. But I can’t risk your other teammates from getting hurt because of…well you know…”

“Tsk! Fine…just drive a steak knife through my neck, why don’t you?” I couldn’t bear to listen to the coach’s excuse. So I left without another word. From there, my life at school had changed dramatically. Most of my so-called friends abandoned me when they saw what I had become. The few friends that did stick around were either in the same boat. Or they would only text and video call me since they didn’t want others to see them hanging around with me.

These prosthetics. They really didn’t change my strength all that much. In fact, my cybernetic right arm and left leg are weaker than my flesh and blood ones. My parents couldn’t afford more powerful models. These alone cost them most of their savings. There’s no way I could complain about them. But. I’d be lying if I said I didn’t miss my flesh and blood limbs.

On top of that, I have to take pills twice a day for my prostheses. Why? Because as advanced as these are, my body doesn’t recognize them as part of my body, causing my antibodies to reject them. Those who don’t take their medication regularly experience pain and inflammation in parts of their bodies where the prostheses/enhancements are. It also leads to what is known as a cyber-psychedelic disorder. It causes those afflicted to experience hallucinations that progress from sensation loss to outright self-mutilation. There are also cases where people go insane and attack others as well.

“Hey, why don’t you go sit with the monsters, freak?!” I got bullied by other kids at school. Those who are human were especially cold, even though I am one.

“…” Then, when I joined the Monsters group, most avoided me without saying a word. Monsters aren’t nearly as judgemental as humans since Monster groups consist of different species. But even they don’t like to be around those with cybernetics due to the ‘Cychos’ they’re often associated with.

I wasn’t the only person with them, so it’s not like I was the only outcast. But the way some of them act made the bias toward us worse. Others were proud of their changes and would boast about it. I didn’t want to draw attention any more than I already did, nor did I want to be ‘proud’ of something I didn’t decide to get. That was made for me while I was on the brink of death. With that mental morass bogging me down, it was only a matter of time before I found myself looking for an escape. I was desperate to find a convenient excuse so I could convince myself that I was nothing more than a victim of circumstance.

“So, how was school today, Maurice?” My mom and dad tried their best to make me feel better. But at the time, all it did was cause me more pain.

“Terrible. Coach Henderson kicked me out of the basketball team because of my new arm and leg…”

“What?! That’s terrible! That’s outright discrimination!” Dad was right. It was definitely discrimination. But it wasn’t just that, which I explained to them during dinner.

“…I see. Is there nothing we can say to your coach that’ll convince him otherwise?” Mom and Dad talked to each other, hoping to find a solution to my problem. That’s when I remembered they were why I ended up the way I am now.

“Enough! No matter what you say to him, he won’t let me back in the team. Just forget about it…” I was frustrated. Incredibly so. I worked hard with my team ever since I was a freshman. The moment I got cybernetic prosthetics, my so-called teammates didn’t so much as back me up. To ease my mind, I tried to focus on my dinner…

“L-look, son. Why don’t we find you a new team to be in? It doesn’t have to be in your school. There are plenty of places where they welcome people with cyber-”

“I SAID TO FORGET ABOUT IT!!!” In an outburst of rage, I stood up from the dinner table before slamming my hands on it. My left hand slammed against my plate, and my right hand caused my cold drink to spill over. On my left hand, I felt the texture and warmth of my dinner. But I couldn’t feel the icy cold drink that spilled on my cybernetic right hand. The stark contrast between my left hand and right hand pushed me to the edge.

“YOU…YOU TWO DID THIS TO ME!!! IF YOU REALLY LOVE ME, THEN YOU SHOULD’VE LET ME DIE THAT DAY!!!” The only sound I heard was the gasps of shock from Mom and Dad, then Mom sobbing shortly after as I ran to my room to sulk. To this day, I regret saying what I did to my parents. Even when they forgave me, not a single day goes by without me apologizing to them. The next morning, I had time to cool my head. My first apology was half-hearted since I just wanted to forget the night before. My Dad would normally have scolded me, but he figured I was in enough mental pain, so he held off on doing so. As for Mom, her eyes and cheeks were still wet that morning. She cried all night, blaming herself for the bullying I’ve gone through.

Over the weeks after, I’ve gotten used to my social standing at school. I learned to ignore those provoking me. And I even sat down and listened to those like me. Through their stories, I learned to cope with my new limbs. But there was no denying I missed my flesh and blood limbs.

“Hey, watch where you’re going, you four le-oh? Excuse me, exalted one. You don’t have four legs. You have three legs and a glorified peg leg!” During one of the seven-minute passing periods, I overheard someone making fun of another with a cybernetic prosthetic.

“I’m so sorry. I’m still trying to get used to it. I didn’t hurt you, did I?” That’s when I met someone who changed my life forever. A Centaur who, by all accounts, was normal except for the cybernetic prosthetic in her front right forelimb. Specifically, the one below her knee.

“Tsk, you are pretty big! You probably bruised my right shoulder!” The guy she bumped into was a fucking asshole. I didn’t see the incident itself, but I can tell he was full of shit.

“I truly am sorry!” The Centaur girl is one of those kind, oblivious types. Without hesitation, she reached into her shoulder bag and handed him money.

“This all you got?! Are you trying to undermine me?!”

“Yes, my mistake! Here.” I couldn’t tell how much she gave him, but I counted at least five twenty-dollar bills. Satisfied, he said nothing else before leaving.

“…” I wanted to tell her to stand up for herself, but the three-minute warning bell went off. I didn’t have time to talk to her. Instead, I got my chance during lunch when I spotted her all by herself outside the cafeteria. “Hey…I saw what happened during the passing period. Did you give that guy all the money you have?” Up close, her beauty was unlike anything I’d seen before. Her peerless blue eyes and brunette hair served to highlight her face. Her long, furry ears that twitched the moment she heard me talk added a cute touch to her beauty.

“Oh, hello, sir. Yes, it was rude of me to bump into him. So it was the least I could do to ease his pain…”

“Pain my ass. That guy was clearly exaggerating so he could extort money from you.” I was angry for her. Compared to me, she barely has any cybernetic prosthetics on her. But that little thing was enough for people to treat her differently.

“Yes, I’m sure you’re right. But I’d rather not cause a scene. I can always wait until I get home for food.”

“And how many days are you gonna do that?”

“Well…that was a week’s worth of food allowance. But I’ll be fine.” It was certainly not fine. Centaurs need a LOT of food. And I couldn’t ignore that.

“A whole week? Screw that. Come on, I’ll go pay for your food.”

“What? No, I appreciate the sentiment, but you really shouldn’t. If people see you around me, they’ll treat you…” She hadn’t noticed I had cybernetic prosthetics like her until she saw my right arm. No. I was worse off than she was. “Oh. Your right arm and left leg…”

“Yeah. Trust me, I know what it’s like to get treated differently. It doesn’t take much for people to treat you differently, doesn’t it?”

“Yes. But. I don’t have anything I can give you for the food.”

“I don’t want anything in return.”

“But…”

“Ugh…okay. Tell you what? If you want to pay me back, keep me company during lunch. Even though we’re not the only ones like this, I still haven’t found a group of people to eat lunch with since most of my friends abandoned me…”

“I understand that sentiment. Very well. If my company alone satisfies you, then so be it.”

“Oh! Uh, I forgot to introduce myself. My name is Maurice. It’s nice to meet you.” By habit, I extended my right hand for her to shake. I wanted to change to my left hand, but she moved too quickly and shook it.

“Jillian Erisia. It’s a pleasure to make your acquaintance.” After that, we chatted for a bit after getting our food.

“So, you’re the school council president for the Monster students?”

“I was one. I was usurped from my title by a rival.”

“What? Why? Don’t tell me it’s because of your right forelimb?”

“I’m afraid so. When I inquired why, I couldn’t bring myself to contest it.”

“Let me guess? They told you having a leader with a cybernetic prosthetic sends a bad image as the student council president. Or, it could put other members in danger because you’re their leader, right?”

“Exactly right. I can bear the burden of being ostracised. But I don’t want any danger to befall others.” Jillian was just like me. She was kicked out unfairly because of her prosthetic.

But…

“Come on. You seriously can’t tell me you buy that. I got kicked out of the basketball team because of my right arm and left leg. Coach says they give me an unfair advantage, but these aren’t like my flesh and blood limbs! I’m actually weaker than I used to be with these. The same goes for you. Right?”

“Well…yes. I can’t sprint with this prosthesis yet. I understand where you’re coming from. But you know as well as I do how people treat you when you’re different. People can be cruel, and I’d rather not get others involved if I can help it.” Jillian didn’t project hatred of any kind to those who treated her differently. She didn’t seem to mind having her prosthetic at all. I was curious about how she got this way, but I didn’t want to sound intrusive since I just met her.

“You’re something else, Jillian.”

“Thank you, Maurice. I may have lost my position as student council president, but I still have my pride.” Yes. Pride was something Jillian had in stride. Despite her treatment, she doesn’t let it get her down. I had a lot to learn from her. Thankfully, I got plenty of time to do so since we became friends ever since.

____________________

“Maurice! How did your appointment go?” As a whole year passed, we shared in each other’s troubles. One of them is a biannual visit to the doctors to recalibrate our cybernetic prosthetics.

“They finally gave me a sensory module. It only affects my palm and fingers, but I can feel stuff with my right hand again.”

“That’s great! I’m happy for you.” It was lunch break at the time.

“What about your right forelimb?”

“The doctors replaced the spring coil in it to support more weight. In theory, I should be able to sprint now.”

“Really?! That’s great!”

“After school…do you want to see me do some laps at a park nearby?”

“Sure. I’d love to.” After school, we went to a nearby park as planned. Watching Jillian warm up for her first sprint since her accident, I couldn’t help but admire her determination. It was her first time stress-testing her new cybernetic prosthesis springs. Not to mention, she looked gorgeous wearing a black sports tank top.

“Maurice? Are you alright?”

“Huh?! Oh, uh…yeah!” I’m sure she noticed me staring. Despite that, she chose to say nothing. Instead, she smiled back and gave me a thumbs up.

“Okay. Here I go!” Being cautious, Jillian started with a slow walk. Then, progressing to a canter, Jillian’s smile faded as she focused on her right forelimb.

“You can do it, Jillian! I’ve seen you go faster than this with your old springs! Don’t hesitate to push harder!” Jillian knew I was right. But, the scars of her past were getting to her. She was beginning to doubt herself. To make matters worse…

“Ha! Look at that idiot over there! Does she seriously think she can gallop with a leg like that?!” Before my cheers could take effect, a group of other Centaurs showed up. They weren’t students in the school Jillian and I went to. They were three college jerks who had nothing better to do.

“Aww! Look, I think she’s gonna trip!” Their taunts were working. Jillian began to slow down. At that moment, I decided to drown those idiots out…

“Don’t listen to these jerks, Jillian! I know you can do it!”

“What? Why are you cheering for her? Oh, wait. You’re a Cycho freak like her!”

“Who cares, asshole?! Jillian! Do it!” Jillian looked over where I was at that moment. Giving her a smile and a thumbs up, I saw her face light up with determination again. Building up speed, she went from walking to trotting, cantering. And eventually…

“No way…that freak’s doing it!” The shocked look on those college douche’s faces was a sight to behold. But, not as marvelous as the sight of Jillian galloping. The sun setting down on the horizon perfectly captured her graceful movements.

“Gah!” Just before Jillian could finish her first lap, she lost her footing on her right forelimb and fell to the ground.

“Hah! Look, the bitch fell!” Running as fast as I could, I ran to Jillian’s side. Thinking back, it was my left leg that made the first move. It’s as if my leg knew the situation and took the first step for me.

“Jillian! Are you okay?!”

“Stupid bitch. I knew she was gonna fall. Hahahaha!” I didn’t even register those college thugs’ taunts as they finally left. I was more worried about Jillian.

“I-I’m okay, Maurice. It is my first time galloping since I got this prosthetic leg.”

“Are you sure? Did you scrape a knee? What about your arm? Your face?” I didn’t realize it since I was too worried about Jillian when she got hurt, but I ran my right hand on her legs, arms, and face to make sure she wasn’t hurt anywhere. Even though my right arm was no longer flesh and bone, the sensory implants I got on my cybernetic one gave me my sensation back.

“M-Maurice…” By the time I noticed what I was doing, my right hand was caressing her cheek. I wanted to keep feeling the warmth emanating from her cheeks.

“O-oh! Sorry!” Out of habit, I nearly pulled my hand away. Before I could, Jillian had put both her hands on it. Then, her cheeks turned red before she dragged my right hand into a circling motion. “Jillian? My cybernetic arm’s all cold and stiff. Doesn’t it feel unpleasant?”

“What’re you talking about? You were feeling for any injuries, right? I’m just helping you. Besides, your hands don’t feel cold or stiff to me. It’s warm and soft, just like your heart.” Like my heart. It certainly struck a cord there when she said that. Her cheeks only got redder after saying that. Not that mine was any better.

“You know, it just occurred to me. I never told you how I ended up with my cybernetic prosthetic, did I?” Jillian had mentioned it three weeks after we got to know each other, but she was part of an athletics team. Track and field, specifically. She loved feeling the wind brush against her hair as she ran for miles. “I was racing other monsters in a fundraiser competition to raise awareness of race segregation. The track had a variety of obstacles to make the race fair for the participants.”

“How long ago was this?”

“It happened during summer break after Sophomore year. Anyway, one of the obstacles we had to circumvent was a set of hurdles. I’ve never done hurdle jumps before, but I was eager to prove myself. So I ran full speed and tried to jump over several hurdles in one jump. I didn’t land properly and snapped my right forelimb. It wasn’t a clean break. My only option was to get a cybernetic prosthetic. My hubris cost me my leg, so I could only blame myself.” Jillian smile suggests she was unbothered by it. I had my suspicion there was more to it than that, but before I had a chance to ask her. “Hey, I want to try again.”

“You want to keep at it?”

“Yeah. I want to go again while I still remember the sensation.”

“Alright. Go for it.” Until she got it down, I watched Jillian gallop again and again. By the time Jillian was satisfied, it had already gotten dark. As soon as she got a text from her parents, she galloped home. As for me, my parents were nice enough to pick me up from the park.

“Honestly, you should’ve told us you’d be in the park. We were worried sick, you know?”

“I know, Dad. I’m sorry.”

“Oh, cut him some slack, dear. It’s been a while since Maurice socialized with others. Let alone a girl his age…”

“M-mom!”

“Right. That girl, Jillian, was it? So she’s a Centaur?”

“Yup. Jillian got made fun of because of her cybernetic prosthetic. I’ve been friends with her for over a year now.” That was the time when Mom and Dad first found out about Jillian. It’s not that I was trying to keep her a secret from them. I just couldn’t find the right moment to bring her up before.

“Shame on you for keeping us in the dark for so long, Maurice! I’d love to meet this Jillian girl.”

“M-maybe someday…” The rest of the ride home was just Mom and Dad pestering me about Jillian. However, they didn’t get a chance to see her until next year…

____________________

“Oh my! So you’re Jillian! My gosh, you’re so tall!” Senior year. My parents got to meet Jillian right after the graduation ceremony.

“No kidding. You’re twice my height. And very beautiful at that.” Mom and Dad wasted no time getting to know Jillian.

“Eheh…you’re both too kind. Must be where Maurice gets it from.” Jillian seemed to hit it off just fine with my parents.

As for me…

“Hmm…you’re much more of a manlet than I realized…”

“Oh, it’s not the size of the man that matters. Besides, he could always-”

“Ah! I don’t think you should bring that up, my love!”

“What? He’s eighteen…” Jillian’s parents were more intimidating by comparison. Her Father had a stout musculature, while her Mother wore clothes that screamed elegance. I honestly felt like I was insulting them by just being around them.

“I-It’s very nice to meet you, Mister and Misses Erisia.”

“The pleasure is ours, Maurice. We have so much to discuss. Like how Jillian always brings you up whenever she comes home from school.”

“Always?”

“Yes. So much so that I honestly don’t care to count how often…” From Jillian’s father’s tone, I was under the impression he didn’t like me.

“Dear, don’t say it like that! You’re gonna give the poor boy the wrong idea!” Pouting with her hands on her hips, Jillian’s mother was much gentler than I thought she’d be. “Like I said. There’s a lot we have to talk about. But I believe Jillian would like to tell you something first, isn’t that right?” Jillian had finished talking with my parents at that point. When I looked back at Mom and Dad, I saw Dad giving me a thumbs-up while Mom was crying. What kind of conversation were they having? I’d find that out later.

“Of course. *Ahem* Maurice. My wife and I have something to tell you before Jillian gets her say…” Taking me by surprise, they both bow in gratitude to me. “Thank you for being Jillian’s friend.”

“Indeed. You’re our daughter’s shining beacon. And we thank you for being there for her…” There was nothing but sincerity in their tone and gesture. I didn’t know how to react at the time. I tried to find the proper words to thank them, but Jillian approached me before I could.

“Maurice. Can you come with me real quick?”

“Uh…where? Aren’t we going to stay for the graduation after-party?”

“What I want to talk to you about is something private. I can’t talk about it in public…” Jillian was rarely secretive. Aside from what she had planned for my Birthday years prior, she had always been honest and upfront if she had something to say. I had a sinking feeling I knew what it was about. Before I could piece it together, Jillian surprised me when her father put a saddle over her horse half back.

“How does this feel, honey? It’s not uncomfortable, is it?”

“No, father. It’s perfect.” Certain Centaur’s have a cultural tradition. They never let a person ride them on their backs unless it’s someone they consider family. Not all Centaurs follow this tradition, but the significance of the act itself is symbolic of their species due to their pride. “Here, Maurice. Hop on.” And so, she permitted me to ride her. At the back of my mind, I knew what she meant by this. When I looked to her parents for approval, her father nodded while her mother smiled.

“Wah…h-hold on. Are you sure? I mean…what you’re asking me is-” I was hesitant since I hadn’t fully grasped the situation yet. That’s when I felt someone smack me on the back.

“Son, I didn’t raise you to be lily-livered, did I? Just go and mount her already.”

“Dad?!”

“It’s alright, sweety. Your father and I want to talk with Mister and Missus Erisia.” Even my parents were okay with me leaving. Pushed into a corner, I got closer to Jillian before asking her for approval.

“Are you sure about this, Jillian?” Without hesitation, Jillian pats the seat on the saddle.

“Yes. Let’s get going, alright?” With Jillian’s final approval, I awkwardly mounted her after almost falling on my first attempt.

“Uh…what should I hold onto so I do?”

“My shoulders. Don’t worry, I won’t be going fast or anything.”

“Oh, alright…” Grabbing onto her shoulders, Jillian’s parents and mine waved us off as we left school. “So, you want to tell me where we’re going?”

“We’re going to the park.”

“At night?!” The park we went to was open until ten at night, so we had three hours until it’d close down.

“Don’t worry! Our parents will come there later to pick us up.” Following the road to the park, Jillian fidgeted with her hands on the way there as if anxious about something. I was worried I was hurting her since sitting on her could add more weight than her cybernetic prosthetic could handle. She didn’t seem bothered, though. “I didn’t want to stay for the party. They tend to be too loud for my taste.”

“Ah. That’s fair. So, bringing us to the park here is like our private little party?”

“You could say that. But I also wanted to talk to you in private.”

“That’s right. You mentioned that earlier. What is it you want to talk about?”

“I’ll tell you when we get there.” Being secretive again, Jillian eventually stops at the same track and field spot where she first learned to gallop again. After her first time here, Jillian made it a habit to practice at this spot. Of course, I was with her to watch and cheer her on each time.

“Okay, can you stop being secretive? Tell me, why are we here?” The spotlights at the park weren’t the brightest, so I could barely make out Jillian’s face under the lights.

“Maurice…we’ve been friends for almost two years now, right?”

“Roughly. Man, you were…no. You’re still kind of a pushover when it comes to strangers. Unless I’m there with you, you’d always try to resolve problems by apologizing extensively without talking back.” I applaud Jillian for being a pacifist even now. That’s what those assholes hated the most. They wanted her to act out so they could justify her being a ‘Cycho.’

“Yes. And to be honest, I don’t think I could’ve kept it up if I didn’t have a certain knight in shining armor coming to my rescue.” I’m sure Jillian noticed since she giggled at me afterward, but my face must’ve been as red as a tomato when she called me her ‘Shining knight.’

“O-Oh, come on. It wasn’t that big of a deal…” I brushed off her compliment as a joke. But, to Jillian, it was no joke.

“It is. Much, much more than you could imagine.” That’s when I saw tears streaming down her cheeks. “Th-they told me to kill myself, you know?”

“What?! Who told you that?!” For a moment, I felt rage seething inside my chest. That immediately went away when Jillian’s cries got more feverish before she lay down on the ground. “Jillian!” I ran to her side as she wiped her face again and again in a futile attempt to wipe her tears away.

“The-they said things like ‘horses with a missing leg as about as good as dead!’ I never told Mother and Father about it. I bottled it up inside since I didn’t want to seem prideless or pay their love with indignity. I tried to ignore them. But I just couldn’t keep their malice out of my head. I was very close to caving into despair.”

“I…I never knew you felt that way…” That was another secret Jillian had been hiding from me up until that point. As a minority within a minority, Jillian was the only Centaur in school with a cybernetic prosthetic. At least there were other humans with cybernetic prosthetics I could relate with at school. But Jillian, she had no one. She was truly alone in that regard.

“Yeah. I’m sorry if I hid it from you. It wasn’t my intention to hide what I was going through.” As her tears began to stop, Jillian grabbed my cybernetic hand and pulled it toward her cheek. “It’s just. After I met you, what those people said didn’t matter.”

“Me? What about your parents?”

“My parent’s love is definitely a factor. But you must understand, Maurice. I didn’t take their words to heart because…to me, they don’t know what it’s like to have a cybernetic prosthetic. ‘How would they know what I went through? They’re not the ones getting made fun of. They don’t know what it’s like.” I understood Jillian’s sentiment painfully well here. I wasn’t in any position to tell her she was wrong. Heck, I was worse than her…

“You’re better than me. I blamed my parents when I was at my lowest. They spent all their savings so I could walk on my own two feet and hands. They did it to save my life. I knew that at the back of my mind, but I still had the gall to shift the blame on them. I apologized to them the next day. I always tell them sorry every day when I can.”

“I’m sure they don’t blame you for it. My conversation with them earlier tells me so.”

“Hey, speaking of. What were you guys talking about?”

“I asked them for their blessings.”

“Eh?” Naturally, I was at a loss for words. Did she really ask them for their blessings? To ask for their blessing meant Jillian wanted to marry me.

“I love you, Maurice. I always have after we first met.”

“I…uh…” Yes, the signs were there. The saddle and its significance. Going over the past and telling me how important I was to her. The countless hours we spent supporting each other in school. Despite that, Jillian confessed her love without missing a beat. What surprised me more, was she felt this way after our first encounter. “Since we’ve first met? Come on, you’re exaggerating again.”

“I’m not! When you shared your lunch money with me, I knew you were the sweetest guy in the school. Your kindhearted nature piqued my interest, and our time together solidified how I felt. What I thought was a cruel hand dealt by fate brought us together. What about you? Do you feel the same way for me?”

“…man. When it comes to moments like these, it’s typically the guy’s job to confess first. Ah, whatever. It’s the same for me, you know? Earlier, when I said I blamed my parents for what happened to me. I told them I would’ve preferred to die. But that was how I felt in the heat of the moment. Over time, I learned to cope with my changes because, like you, I didn’t want to repay my parent’s love by committing suicide. Looking back at those who had it worse than me helped too. Compared to them, all I lost was an arm and a leg. So what right do I have to complain?”

“Maurice…” I hadn’t thought about it until that moment, but Jillian and I had similar experiences yet different outcomes.

I hated how my cybernetics made me an outcast and blamed my parents out of blind rage. I knew I was wrong and apologized and eventually got used to my cybernetics through empathy for those who had it worse than me. Using gratitude from my parents’ love, empathy from those who were just like me, and spite from those who bullied me, I persevered.

Jillian never hated her parents for what happened to her right forelimb. She was willing to accept what happened to her, but the people who treated her badly made her feel like an outcast. Because she’s good-natured, blaming her parents never crossed her mind. That said, bottling her feelings the way she did acted like a bile, poisoning her from the inside. Her willpower chipped away, Jillian was moments from contemplating suicide when I approached her.

“Looking at you, your positive outlook inspired me further to look past my preconceived notion of isolation. I’m not the only person suffering like this. You’re an inspiration to me. I love you. I love you for how headstrong you are. You’re such a beauty both in mind and body. Now that you opened up to me about how you truly feel on the inside, it makes me want to be with you even more so I can protect you. We’re two of a kind, and as long as I have you, then what others say doesn’t matter.” Jillian closed her eyes and puckered her lips without even me saying so. Indeed, we were two of a kind since I did the same thing. While holding each other’s hands, we exchanged a tender, loving kiss.

No matter where one goes, there’s always segregation between the most mundane things.

Race, Sex, Gender Identity, Religious Beliefs, Political Standings and so on. What’s important isn’t fitting in with everyone.

What’s important is to find those who accept you or inspire you. Flesh or steel? If it comes from someone you love, it’ll always feel warm.

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